Food & Drink

This man ate at black-owned restaurants for a month. They’re more scarce than you think

Berry Accius walked into Beana’s Cafe and greeted 11-year-old Zaire Muhammad with a loud “How you doin’, nephew?” They slapped palms three times before Muhammad moved away from his table and behind the counter.

Accius admired the paintings of black women covering the walls of the adjacent Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum, then ordered navy bean pie and vegan nachos topped with nutritional yeast cheeze. It was a much-needed break from the heavy barbecue and soul food he regularly put down while working toward his goal of eating at a different black-owned restaurant every day in February.

Roughly 15 percent of Sacramento residents are black, according to 2010 Census data, but black-owned restaurants are much harder to come by. Drive down Stockton Boulevard or Florin Road and you’ll see Latinos (27 percent) and Asians (18 percent) have been more successful at running restaurants. So why not blacks, Accius asked?

“My whole thing isn’t, ‘Oh, I only want to eat black food,’” Accius said. “I just want to have the options. And far and wide, we don’t have options. That, to me, is the frustrating thing.”

A youth mentor, black activist, motivational speaker and soon-to-be thrift shop owner who regularly leads rallies in memory of Stephon Clark, Accius is not shy about his heritage. An Africa-shaped pendant dangled from his neck on his trip to Beana’s Cafe; his back was covered by a kente cloth knapsack.

He’s also no stranger to the kitchen. Accius attended culinary school, he said, and lists “urban chef” in his Twitter bio. He’s cooked Caribbean dishes at a stand when Florin Square turns to an African marketplace, and hopes to open his own restaurant someday.

Accius set out to eat at a different black-owned restaurant every day in celebration of Black History Month and to see how difficult doing so would be, he said. All other meals were cooked at home, with the exception of two black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area, Puerto Rican eatery Sol Food in San Rafael and one late-night sushi run.

In all, Accius went to Beana Cafe, Cora Lorraine’s, Tori’s Place, Queen Sheba, South, D’s Smokin Pit, Momo’s Meat Market, Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood, Daddy O’s Smokehouse, DubPlate Kitchen & Jamaican Cuisine, Caribbean Breeze, Flowers Fish Market & Restaurant, Habesha Restaurant and Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant. He also went to Burgess Brothers And Antojitos only to realize it was no longer black-owned.

Eating out for breakfast and meals past 9 p.m. was particularly challenging, Accius said. So was dining on Mondays, when locally-owned restaurants often close to give their workers a break. Accius’ on-the-go professional lifestyle also regularly forced him to grab whatever option was nearest; he ate at Queen Sheba three or four times because there weren’t many other choices near Broadway, he said.

There were some judgment calls, too. Rob Archie owns Pangaea Bier Cafe and co-owns Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse, but Accius said he forgot about them because neither feels particularly “black.”

“You can kind of feel the residue that it’s black-owned. You can feel it from the vibe, the music, the people, the food,” Accius said. “More than likely, if you go to a black restaurant – whether it’s Caribbean-style or African American food, which is considered soul food – there’s going to be some staples. You’re going to have mac and cheese, you’re going to have greens, you’re going to have a fried chicken, you’re going to have some kind of barbecue.”

Those constants are all on the menu at Cora Lorraine’s Soul Food, a south Sacramento restaurant named after founder Kevin McCree’s two grandmothers. McCree came to Sacramento four years ago from Oakland, where arguably the most famous contemporary restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, is owned by black chef and author Tanya Holland.

Sacramento and Oakland are similarly-sized cities just 80 miles apart, but their cultural roots are worlds away, McCree said. One has historically been a farm town with pockets of black excellence, McCree said; the other is a veritable “chocolate city.”

“When your city or town or community is not strong in black culture, it’s going to show in every facet of black life,” McCree said. “From food to economics to education to whatever it is, you’re not going to really compete and thrive.”

The biggest hurdles prospective black restauranteurs face are economic, and they’re not necessarily confined to Sacramento. Black entrepreneurs launch their businesses with an average of $35,205 in startup capital compared to $106,720 for white entrepreneurs, according to a 2016 UC Santa Cruz study.

Even when blacks have credit scores in the 75th percentile, the study found, they’re twice as likely as whites to be rejected when applying for loans – or they don’t even bother applying out of fear of rejection. Restaurants, in particular, are notoriously dicey investments full of hidden opening costs, which can deter would-be owner/chefs without solid financial footing.

“It’s only hard when you don’t have the capital. So hell yeah, it’s going to be harder for a black man or a black woman to open their own restaurant,” McCree said. “It comes from the way the world views black people. We’re not responsible, we don’t pay our bills on time or our credit is low.”

Those extra obstacles are part of the reason Nasir Muhammad’s three children all work in Beana’s Cafe. Muhammad helped in his father’s Valley Hi barbecue joint as a teenager, he said, and wanted his children to learn how to “do it for themselves” as well.

Assuming the 7-month-old cafe survives, Muhammad’s kids will have the option to take over the cafe when they’re of age. If not, Muhammad hopes, they’ll have the business acumen to be their own bosses some other way.

Another reason Muhammad opened his Meadowview cafe: the dearth of local black-owned restaurants selling waistline-friendly dishes. The Muhammad family’s mostly-vegan home diet is mirrored in Beana Cafe’s dairy-free muffins, lentil stews and mac and “cheeze,” plus fish and Halal chicken once a week. Black Americans are 40 percent more likely to be obese than whites, according to the federal Office of Minority Health, and those staples Accius kept running into don’t help.

“Our people’s diet is not the most healthy, not by choice,” Muhammad said. “We’re trying to make our food healthier for our people, to the point where they enjoy it without even realizing it’s healthy.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.